Defining the framework

Problems are inevitable with any project. However, careful planning and a strong framework can help to minimise any issues that may be encountered during network installations.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  December 1, 2003

Setting the plan|~||~||~|The network forms the hub of any IT infrastructure. As such, it is essential that a network is implemented with the utmost care and evaluation. Projects should be planned, documented and deployed with support from both management and IT departments.

The consequences of not doing this can be great. For instance, problems relating to the network can affect business critical applications and lead to substantial costs being incurred.

"The network infrastructure is the most critical part of the IT infrastructure and it has to be perfect to enable all critical and non-critical applications to run smoothly. Therefore, a customer's vision has to be inline with their organisation's strategies, including corporate, business and operational strategies," says Tony Alam, general manager, Computer Network Systems (CNS).

While constraints such as budgets and time frames play a defining role in the design and implementation of any network project, systems integrators advocate determining the business goals as the initial step in any deployment.

"Whether it is a green site looking to build a new infrastructure, or a customer that is looking to expand or enhance its existing network infrastructure, we always start with the end in mind," says Saeed Agha, manager of the networking & security division, Emirates Computers. "We try to understand the business drivers behind the infrastructure and why the customer is embarking on the project," he continues.

Once the initial project aim has been established, systems integrators can begin to form an idea of the infrastructure required and start to factor in other aspects. For example, Alam says an insight into projected growth of the company over the next three-to-five years and expansions or upgrades to the planned network infrastructure are essential. After all, there is no point deploying an infrastructure that will be stretched to the limit the moment the implementation is complete.

"Before entering the design stage, it is crucial that we have a clear idea of the customer's needs. As a next step, the stated needs are collated with an equally clearly defined set of goals, which might include, for example future network expansion and upgrades. The tabulation of the list of needs and objectives provides us with the basic parameters for conceptualisation of the proposed network," says Basel Humaidah, business development manager, Al Falak Electronic Equipment & Supplies Company.

While these project goals can then provide the foundation for the design stages of the network infrastructure, their role can also extend to risk management and troubleshooting. For example, Jerald Murphy, senior vice president & service director, infrastructure strategy services with Meta Group, says that a pre-defined set of aims can aid the decision-making processes when a project encounters troubles in the implementation stages.

"If you understand the aims of the project it helps guide decisions when you need to make a compromise, or when you need to change the schedule for your implementation. Understanding the intent is critical to helping you make decisions when things don't go according to plan," he explains.

Moving forward, budgetary aspects are factored into the design, and site surveys are carried out to determine the finer details of the network, such as how many access points are required and floor plans for the cabling infrastructure. From this a bill of materials can be determined, says Narendra Talreja, customer services manager, Wintel & Enterprise UAE, Seven Seas.

"As the discussion moves ahead based on the site survey, customers are quite often amazed at the complexity of the project and the hidden costs that have surfaced with the help of the survey. This survey also helps the customer to understand their requirement in more detail with implications on time, resources and budget," he explains.

||**||Customer interaction|~||~||~|While systems integrators actively encourage customer interaction and involvement in the design stages, they explain that technical knowledge is not necessarily required. Although it may help to cut down the design stages, Agha argues that customers don't need to get right down into the finer details.

"The customer's main involvement in a networking project is when we get to what we call the low level design, where we decide on what the traffic policies are and how to design the network from a user community perspective. For example, the accounting department may have certain policies and privileges that should not be available to marketing or sales - that is when the customer gets involved. There is no need for them to be involved when we think Gigabit Ethernet or firewall," he explains.

Encompassing these initial stages of assessment and design is a framework or project plan. This is fundamental to a successful project implementation and proves beneficial to both customers and systems integrators. These documented structures can involve the use of a number of tools or processes.

Seven Seas, for example, uses a number of solutions, including MS-Project, Primavera, AutoCAD and MS-Visio to draw up the framework, while it also follows ITIL and PRINCE2 practises and methodologies for project management. CNS and Alpha Data, meanwhile, follow ISO certified procedures and plans, which cover design, implementation, services and maintenance.

These frameworks are also designed to facilitate troubleshooting processes. As such, Seven Seas factors in a buffer with its project plan and implementation processes. "We keep a buffer as risk management on time and other project variables," says Talreja. "We also have an escalation mechanism with the senior technical personnel and with the principal [vendor], if required," he continues.

Emirates Computers, however, counters problems through design overview meetings, which drill down further into the network design, but negate the need for customer intervention. "Tackling problems within the framework is only solved by frequent meetings, what we call design overview. The more frequent these design overviews, the easier it is to tackle any problems. If you encounter a problem, all you need to do is go back to the previous design overview and work from there," says Agha.

Frameworks, however, form the roadmap for the entire project, detailing statements of work, goals and escalation procedures. But, when it comes to the actual physical implementation, integrators often set up labs to evaluate the network design and the impact it will have on the existing IT infrastructure.

"If the scope of the network is serious or, it is a network migration, then we definitely set up a lab," says Ravi Mali, director of Alpha Data's networking division. "The lab is within our office, although sometimes it is set up at the client's premises. It is more for testing the logical [infrastructure] and making sure that when we migrate it will work," he says.

||**||Going live|~||~||~|As the implementation proceeds and the solution begins to go live, customers and integrators sign off handovers or milestones. This process effectively means that a particular goal or aim has been fulfilled and that the customer has now taken control of that aspect. Emirates Computers, for one, links its milestones to the initial project goals and tries to pre-define these points as much as possible.

"We pre-define certain technical milestones and stations where we stop and evaluate what we have done so far and how we are going towards our [ultimate] goals and targets," explains Agha.

Alpha Data also fortifies its handover processes with acceptance testing, whereby it goes over the promises and goals of the technical infrastructure to make sure that everything is in place and working as planned with the customer.

"In some of the larger networks we also conduct acceptance testing. Our team meets with the client and builds acceptance criteria together, which asks whether features that were promised during the RFI or RFP stage have been implemented or not. And if they have, are they working? This is tested and then both parties sign documents to say that it has been fulfilled," says Mali.

While milestone processes can extend beyond just the technical processes and into the entire project implementation, Meta's Murphy advises against going into too much depth with these sign off points.

"I wouldn't make the milestones excessively granular, but make sure you have major milestones with multi-group buy in. At the beginning, you have the different groups sign off the actual project vision and goal, then you have a sign off when the design is complete and then when the testing is complete, people sign off on that," he recommends.

"You need milestones, but have them at key juncture points. If you have a project plan it should have about six milestones," Murphy adds.

While design, implementation and problem solving are all perhaps obvious elements of the project management equation; one aspect that integrators say is often undermined is that of knowledge transfer. Although, for some enterprises this process is not so important due to knowledge levels among their own staff, for other customers it is crucial.

"With control increasingly falling to the end user, it is important for the customer to know the IT infrastructure inside out," says Talreja.

"With some customers knowledge transfer is key because once you finish a job their team has to run the network and they won't allow you to come in after that because once you have handed it over, technically you are out of the project. So unless you make them comfortable with the infrastructure they are not going to give you a hand off," adds Mali.

Once the project has been completed, systems integrators also have their own ways to determine the success of an implementation. CNS, for example, compares and contrasts the initial project aims with the completed solution to see if these have all been accomplished.

"We evaluate the success of the implementation by comparing our commitments before the start of the project versus the requirements and expectations of the customer, in terms of time, operation, features and cost. Also, we run a satisfaction survey for customers," says Alam.

While integrators admit that no project is ever problem free, they all say there is only one way to tackle these issues and ultimately fulfil the requirements of the customer. "If planning is conducted correctly and well thought out then the success rate is very high, if you don't plan well, then the success rate is not good," says Mali.||**||

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